In crisis situations, the agencies that are tasked with supplying aid generally face a few hard questions: Who exactly needs your help? Where are they located? How can you or your supplies reach them most effectively?
A few years ago, figuring that out represented a logistical nightmare, the kind that could lead to service delays and lost lives or seriously costly waste. But the nonprofit industry has a new tool kit: In 2010, Qlik, a data visualization company, began offering free products and services with training through a global corporate social responsibility program called Change Our World. Nonprofits can now overlay all of the charts, maps, graphs, and inventory lists that once vexed them to clearly see what actions they should take to save more lives.
Qlik, which was founded in Sweden, opened its U.S. headquarters about a decade ago. They’ve worked with more than 40,000 clients, ranging from financial service firms to hospitals and manufacturers. "The only things they have in common is data, lots of data, and many different data sources," says CEO Lars Bjork.
He believes that by visually comparing all of the variables that affect your business, you’ll be able to see new lessons about how your operation is running. That could lead to a better understanding of what market forces are really impacting an investment, what medicines work best for certain patients, or how to make more widgets per hour and distribute them more easily.
Specifically, Qlik is designed to let users import large data sets from different kinds of files or different organizational formats into a smart platform, which uses its own internal algorithm to scale that data or overlay it in ways that are comparable. Once the information is interconnected, if you see something interesting, you can zoom in and watch related graphs adjust, exploring whatever questions you might now have about the data set.
For broader topics, it’s become a great way to figure out important factors behind, say, the happiest places on the earth, UFO sightings, or a successful Major League Baseball playoff run. "Your imagination is the boundary of what you could use this for," Bjork says. The system itself has just one intentional design principle: "It’s got to be so damn simple my mother can use it—or your grandmother, depending on your age." Just about any system with lots of numbers and variables can be distilled to spot new truths.
Given the complexity of solving today’s social-, environmental-, and disaster-related crises, Bjork figured charitable groups could probably use the same tool, even if they might not be able to afford it. (He credits the company’s Scandinavian values.) More than 250 groups have since taken advantage of the service.
One of their early adopters was Direct Relief, a nonprofit that provides medical supplies to emergency zones worldwide. In crisis situations, the group not only has to decide what resources might make the best impact, and where to ship them, but also how to coordinate that shipment with goods stockpiled at warehouses around the country.
In most cases, the group is combining information from maps with weather forecasts, census information, regional health trends, their own inventory lists, and how they operated during similar situations to create a custom dashboard that helps them see what strategies work best in each scenario.
By using Qlik after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, for instance, they foresaw that victims would most likely need bandages, vaccines, and antibiotics. They then compared in-country regulations about medicines they’d be allowed to administer to what they had available. And where those were being stored, along with their expiration dates, to figure out what could arrive the quickest and stay effective longest.
With flood victims displaced by the August flooding in Louisiana, there was evidence that inhalers for asthmatics and insulin for diabetics would be crucial. (Historically, hospital check-ins show that these are things people depend on daily but can’t go back for.) Regional health trends showed what areas might be most affected, and what hospitals were closest. Insulin must be refrigerated. Based on hospital location and storage capacity, they knew how much to send and how often.
As a result, their disaster plans now feel more proactive; they can move quicker, with fewer surprises as tragedies drag on. They can even better forecast how they might respond to fast-moving or difficult-to-contain outbreaks like Ebola or Zika. "You can go in there and look around and answer any question that comes up at any time," says Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe. "It makes it easier to make better decisions with more information." Especially because the alternative used to involve nine different people to generate a report that came back almost indecipherable, he adds, only half-jokingly. For donors, Direct Relief can layer in the costs associated with each action and associated impacts on the ground. That means more transparency around how money is being used.
Other charities seeing things differently include Medair, a Christian-faith humanitarian group that provides emergency response kits such as shelter, hygiene, water, and sanitation in impoverished and often war-torn places like Afghanistan, the Middle East, and South Sudan. Qlik allows the group to track not just the raw totals of what they’re giving out, but what items each family is taking, what those families look like, where they live. The result is an interactive community map that shows more accurately how and where communities are struggling. This helps direct the group’s goals for water, sanitation, and shelter projects in each place.
Smile Train, a group that works with local doctors to coordinate cleft lip and palate surgeries in 85 countries, can now easily compare things like patient age, frequency of surgeries, and continued rate of regional cleft birth defects across lots of areas to figure out how to allocate resources. (Many of these kids live in isolation with breathing and eating and speaking issues, so helping them when they’re young radically improves their life potential.)
They can observe how other variables like funding, hospital staffing, or facility accessibility may be affecting outcomes. "It’s unimaginable to think about digging through that with a spreadsheet or any other way," says Erin Stieber, Smile Train’s vice president of strategic partnerships. "This is really important for how we plan for the future. Looking at trends in areas of need is really helpful to implementing programs as efficiently as possible."
The same software is helping the UN’s Office of Information and Communications Technology find news ways to track countries progress toward the agency’s goals for sustainable development, which passed last year. That includes a "Diplomatic Pulse" app that’s used by the UN Department of Political Affairs for analysts to track and share indicators of poverty in different regions—and how they may be connected. The agency has also created a portal that compares gender differences in terms of education, employment rates, and health services among countries to hone in on what efforts are working and who’s lagging behind.
In other words, there’s a value that goes beyond just being more efficient. As Bjork says: "For these organizations, data-driven possibilities have gone from something abstract to something as tangible as the possibility of saving people’s lives."
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.